Thoughts on Aaron Sorkin’s The Social Network

1) The movie, especially the first 30 minutes, is very good: the dialog is astonishingly quick. The details are right (I’ve been to AEP parties and used Emacs). The movie isn’t boring, though most of it consists of guys talking to each other. The various narrative threads are a good example of Steven Berlin Johnson’s essay “Watching TV Makes You Smarter” in action.

2) I suspect The Social Network hears about the same relationship to reality that Braveheart does to early Scotland or War and Peace does to Napoleon, which is to say very little. “The Face of Facebook” in The New Yorker shows this.

3) Lawrence Lessig’s review is mostly negative and says that the movie misses the point. He moves in the same kind of direction I do:

[…] what’s important here is that Zuckerberg’s genius could be embraced by half-a-billion people within six years of its first being launched, without (and here is the critical bit) asking permission of anyone. The real story is not the invention. It is the platform that makes the invention sing. Zuckerberg didn’t invent that platform. He was a hacker (a term of praise) who built for it. And as much as Zuckerberg deserves endless respect from every decent soul for his success, the real hero in this story doesn’t even get a credit. It’s something Sorkin doesn’t even notice.

This is true, but it’s also a bit like criticizing Romeo and Juliet for failing to accurately depict the real political scene of Italy. The point is the love story. But Lessig is probably right, although I’m not sure there’s a way to depict “the platform that makes the invention sing” and still tell a compelling story around human characters.

4) Compare Lessig’s review to those of Scott Adams (“It is the best movie I have ever seen”), David Denby (“This brilliantly entertaining and emotionally wrenching movie is built around a melancholy paradox”), and Fred Vogelstein. The latter is more about the reaction to the movie than the movie itself but is still worth reading.

5) The Social Network is that rare movie about the people who are doing the most to change the world in the shortest amount of time of any group ever: nerds and hackers, who’ve largely built the world we now inhabit. Very few movies bother depicting nerds at all, and when they do, those nerds are usually peripheral to the action or not really nerds or completely untrue to nerds in real life. This isn’t just true in movies—it’s also true in fiction. One nice thing about novels like Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is that it incorporates hackers and a hacker’s mindset as few other novels I’ve read have. There are a zillion movies and books about love stories, bildungsroman, soldiers, criminals, cops, and lawyers. All these are lovely subjects for narrative art, but the incredibly dearth of such books about the hacker sub-culture is notable. I’m trying to fix this in my own small way; we’ll see if I’m successful.

Note that Gabriella Coleman wrote a piece for The Atlantic on “The Anthropology of Hackers;” it is good reading for anyone interested in the modern world.

6) Building off points 3 and 5, although The Social Network gets a lot of stuff right, especially the drama, it’s not an accurate portrayal of nerds and nerd subcultures (it can be a good movie without being an accurate portrayal). I would also guess that Zuckerberg, more than anything else, cares about code, which I don’t think most people can or want to understand. Maybe artists can, because I think a lot of the best artists care about their art more than anything else, which can be frustrating to people around them.

7) The tech and hacking communities are well aware of how the legal system and patent law are out of control and, in many respects, stifling innovation. Although patents never come up in The Social Network, perhaps it will raise awareness of the problems posed by the legal system.

8) I feel like I’ve met Zuckerberg. Not the literal Zuckerberg, of course, but I’ve met plenty of hardcore engineer and hacker types whose lack of social graces is probably not a cause or effect of their technical prowess, but may be an ancillary byproduct of wanting to make art or write code more than be socially adept.

EDIT: I wrote this October 13; on October 15, the New York Times published “Hey, That’s Me Up On That Screen,” which says, “For the newest class of entrepreneurs developing the next generation of Web-based companies, “The Social Network” is the first time many have seen their startup culture splashed on the big screen.” Compare that to my sixth point.

3 responses

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the movies Shame and Sleeping Beauty « The Story's Story

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the movie “Gone Girl” by David Fincher | The Story's Story

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on the movies “Shame” and “Sleeping Beauty” « The Story's Story

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